Episodes 5 and 6 of "The Last Dance" see Jordan growing sick of the media spotlight. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Episodes 5 and 6 of "The Last Dance" see Jordan growing sick of the media spotlight. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
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By Bonnie Stiernberg / May 4, 2020 8:54 am

It’s not easy being Michael Jordan. That, of course, should be painfully obvious for a number of reasons, but episodes 5 and 6 of The Last Dance go out of their way to highlight one in particular. This installment focuses on the media scrutiny Jordan faced — how his golden-boy, “Be Like Mike” image took a few hits after the revelations in Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules, his refusal to take a political stance and a few incidents that brought his gambling habit to light.

In some ways, these episodes felt like a bridge to major events we know must be coming later on — the murder of Jordan’s father in July of 1993 and the announcement of his first retirement three months after that tragedy. Yet they manage to stand on their own as fascinating behind-the-scenes looks at Jordan at various periods of his career, including his time on The Dream Team and a memorable All-Star appearance with Kobe Bryant. With that in mind, these are the highlights from the fifth and sixth episodes.

“That little Lakers boy”

Episode 5 begins with a dedication to the late Kobe Bryant, and it features plenty of behind-the-scenes footage from the ’98 All-Star Game — believed at the time to be Jordan’s final All-Star appearance, while a 19-year-old Bryant was making his debut as the youngest All-Star in NBA history. It feels quaint now, and a little sad of course, to hear the way Jordan was talking about him in the locker room: “That little Lakers boy is gonna take everybody one-on-one,” he says. “He don’t let the game come to him. He just go out there and take it.” At the end of the game, Jordan tells Bryant the obvious: “I’ll see you down the road.”

The episode also features a brief interview segment in which Bryant refers to Jordan as “like my big brother,” and he recalls how MJ was always willing to answer his questions and offer advice, noting that that’s why he has always resented the debates over whether or not he’d be able to beat Jordan one-on-one. “What you get from me is from him,” he explains in the doc. “I don’t get five championships here without him because he guided me so much, and gave me so much great advice.”

Jordan’s infamous “Republicans buy sneakers too” comment was made “in jest”

“Republicans buy sneakers, too” is perhaps one of the most memorable quotes of Michael Jordan’s career, a seemingly selfish explanation for why the biggest sports star in the world opted to remain apolitical and failed to endorse African-American Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt over known racist Jesse Helms in North Carolina’s 1990 Senate race. In The Last Dance, Jordan explains that the comment was taken out of context, and he refuses to walk it back. “I don’t think that statement needs to be corrected because I said it in jest on a bus with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen,” Jordan says. “It was thrown off the cuff. My mother asked to do a PSA for Harvey Gantt, and I said, ‘Look, Mom, I’m not speaking out of pocket about someone that I don’t know. But I will send a contribution to support him.’ Which is what I did.”

Jordan also defended his decision to not speak out politically during his career. “I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in,” he said. “But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”

The segment also featured the return of Barack Obama — who, as some keen-eyed viewers noticed, was referred to this time as “President Barack Obama” instead of “former Chicago resident.” “”I’ll be honest, when it was reported that Michael said, ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’ — for somebody who was at that time preparing for a career in civil rights law and knowing what Jesse Helms stood for, you would’ve wanted to see Michael push harder on that,” Obama says in the doc. “On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out, ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me, and how do I live up to it?’”

Jordan’s gambling problem — er, “competition problem”

While the comment about Republicans and sneakers was already chipping away slightly at Jordan’s role-model image, his notorious gambling habit would ultimately do more damage there, and Episode 6 chronicles his controversial trip to Atlantic City with his father the night before the Bulls lost Game 2 of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals to Knicks. It also introduces MJ’s connection to golf hustler Slim Bouler in the form of a signed $57,000 check — which Jordan eventually admitted was to settle a gambling debt — and his decision to stop talking to the media for two weeks in ’93 after they began to wonder whether he had a problem.

Eventually, as we see in archival footage, he sat down with Connie Chung and insisted the answer to that question was “no.” “No, because I can stop gambling,” he said. “I have a competition problem, a competitive problem.”

“I never bet on games. I only bet on myself, and that was golf,” present-day Jordan insists in the doc. “Do I like to play blackjack? Yeah, I like playing blackjack. There’s no laws with that. The league did call me, and they asked me questions about it, and I told them exactly what was happening.”

David Stern also appears in the episode to put any conspiracy theories to rest, saying, “Michael was betting on his golf game — larger numbers than you or I might bet if we played golf together. But given his earnings and the like, it just never reached epic, crisis levels in my view.”

Of course, in addition to those “larger numbers,” The Last Dance goes out of its way to show us behind-the-scenes footage of Jordan placing modest bets with just about everyone he encountered, including this delightful security guard, who ruthlessly recreated Jordan’s iconic shrug from the ’92 Finals after defeating him.

The Dream Team beat up on Toni Kukoč because of Pippen and Jordan’s beef with Jerry Krause

If you know anything about the Dream Team, you know that the ’92 Olympic team absolutely destroyed its competition, winning every single game by over 30 points. But Episode 5 of The Last Dance reveals that Team USA’s routs of Croatia in their first meeting and in the gold medal game were personal, thanks to Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan’s feelings about their eventual Bulls teammate Toni Kukoč

Kukoč had been drafted by the Bulls in 1990 but elected to remain in Europe for a few more years, and Pippen and Jordan were both irked by Jerry Krause referring to him as the future of the franchise, so Jordan instructed his teammates to “leave him for Scottie and me,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Toni Kukoč became a great teammate and I love Toni Kukoč for who he is,” Jordan says. “But the way he was introduced to me and Scottie, I didn’t appreciate that. It had drove my energy.”

“Jerry paved a way for a lot of hell for Toni Kukoč,” Pippen adds in the doc. “Not only was it me and Michael, but every guy on the Olympic team looked at that kid and felt like he may not even think about coming to the NBA after he played against us. It wasn’t anything personally about Toni, but we were gonna do everything that we could to make Jerry look bad.”

Other Dream Team revelations from the episode include the fact that Jordan wasn’t the only one who didn’t want Isiah Thomas on the team (Pippen and Magic Johnson also had beef with the Piston) and some context behind the team’s legendary scrimmage in Monte Carlo, believed to be the greatest game of basketball ever played.

What’s the deal with Jerry Seinfeld in the locker room?

It was a brief moment in The Last Dance, but I can’t stop thinking about this locker room visit from Jerry Seinfeld.

Everything about it is perfect: the awkward “Hi, Phil” from Seinfeld to Phil Jackson, the faces Jordan pulls as he picks up on that awkwardness, the way Seinfeld taps a play on the board and says “that won’t work” as he walks away. The way Jordan points to a few trainers in the room and says “they watch Seinfeld all the time” is exquisite; he, of course, would never admit it to Seinfeld if he was a fan himself. It is painfully obvious that this is Jerry Seinfeld meeting him, not vice versa. Nevertheless, I can’t stop wondering now whether Jordan has ever actually seen an episode of Seinfeld. (I’m leaning towards no, but imagining him watching “The Contest” is too good to rule out entirely.)

Jordan was “exhausted” after the first three-peat

Episode 6 wraps up with the Bulls completing their first three-peat by defeating Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. “That was probably the first time in my life that I felt like there was a better basketball player in the world than me,” Barkley recalls in the episode. “I have no problem losing to Michael. Losing to Michael, there’s no shame in that. Sports are like a gunfight. And we lost to the fastest gun.”

That may have been the case, but The Last Dance also highlights Jordan’s growing weariness at the time and hints at his first retirement. “Physically, I was getting exhausted,” he says. “But mentally, I was way past exhausted. When you try to do something repetitively, you lose some of the hunger, some of the edge.”

Of course, we already know what happened next; don’t be surprised if we see Jordan in a baseball uniform in Episode 7.